What’s this? An opinion about something that’s not a book? Yep! Every Valley is the new album by the found-sound ensemble Public Service Broadcasting, and it’s the best album I’ve heard this year.
If you’re not familiar with them, PSB build progressive post-rock songs around mostly spoken-word clips taken from old information films. It’s not that this is an original idea – a lot of rock acts have played with samples to spice up long instrumentals, from Maybeshewill to 65daysofstatic to The Books – but PSB try to do more than just go for cheap jokes or coast on the quaintness of the past. As they joke, PSB’s mission is to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future”.
With each album, they’ve become deeper and richer – starting with The War Room EP, which uses old Blitz Spirit propaganda films from WWII, through the mishmash of newsreels and educational films from Inform Educate Entertain, to The Race for Space, which turns real radio transmissions from the Space Race into gripping songs. Every Valley is certainly their worthiest project yet, covering the fall of the South Welsh mining industry in the latter half of the twentieth century.
God, that sounds grim, doesn’t it?
But it works. PSB managed to make a concept album about Welsh industrial decline that is not only toe-tapping, but poignant. A listenable piece of social history that made its way into the top ten, all thanks to a few brilliant ideas.
For one thing, the range of samples has changed a little. While the first half of the album includes a few of the classic sort of perky government film clips (including the eponymous Every Valley, and an absolutely astounding disco-sounding 70s NCB recruitment advert in which a coal miner cavorts with a bikini-clad lass in a jacuzzi), they’re thinner on the ground, and essentially absent from the second half of the album.
As reviews of Inform Educate Entertain were already pointing out, by restricting themselves to British government films, PSB were only ever sampling a very small section of society – chiefly posh English men ready to tell you how wonderful the future would with colour TV, Spitfires and pleats. You only hear the stories the government wanted told, and the story of the slow, shambling death of coal mining was certainly not one. As a result, to make Every Valley they set up studio in Ebbw Vale, in the shadow of the closed steelworks, and interviewed local people about their experiences.
These interviews cover the obvious topics: the Miners’ Strike is the topic of “All Out”, a fiery wall-of-sound that can only be described as like PSB’s “Signal 30” covered by Rage Against the Machine that crescendoes towards a softly-spoken woman quietly intoning “I was brought up to respect police. I don’t respect them now.” But you also hear the stories of the lives that orbited around the mines above ground. “They Gave me a Lamp” – named for the memoirs of a colliery nursing officer – quotes members of women’s support groups from the area as they explain how learning to do wire a plug or change a tyre helped make them more independent, and one man in “Mother of the Village” talks about his sadness at seeing the village’s pubs empty.
One thing you won’t hear is names. The album is political – it couldn’t not be – but you never hear Thatcher, Wilson or Scargill. It was Labour that collaborated with the unions to close pits in the 1970s, and the Conservatives that left struggling communities out to dry in the 1980s, but these events are really the background. It’s the details that the miners themselves bring up – knowing the closure of the mine didn’t just mean you lost your job, but also that your sons lost their futures; remember that once, the village had had shops – that make the album. These are the timeless messages, the ones that deal with moments of deep personal experience, say something about the spirit of our time, and will still be worth saying a hundred years hence.
It’s not all about interviews though. The culture of South Wales also gets its chance to shine, and deliver its own messages. The poet Idris Davies’ Gwalia Deserta XXXVI is set to music on “Turn No More”, sung by James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers, and the Welsh language is the equal of English in the heartfelt duet “You + Me” with Lisa Jên Brown. The album ends with the Beaufort Male Choir singing Edwards Hand’s classic “Take Me Home” – the perfect blend of beauty and melancholy and a physical reminder that although the mines are gone, the communities they wrought still survive.